Exploring New Horizons in Space Medicine: Fondazione Internazionale Menarini and NASA’s Multidisciplinary Conference

In September 2023, the conference “Building a Space Faring Civilization” took place in Florence, jointly organized by Fondazione Internazionale Menarini, NASA, Sovaris Aerospace, and The Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine.

Physicians, astronauts, engineers, astronomers, historians, physicists and ethicists gathered for a unique three-day event, with the goal of initiating a multidisciplinary discussion about the latest advancements in medical and scientific research related to space, and how these findings could be applied on Earth.

Several contemporary factors, such as climate change, the depletion of critical resources, potential collisions with other celestial objects, the threat of new infectious diseases, and even the eventual demise of our own Sun, are pushing us to consider the possibilities of a future beyond our home planet.

Preparing for this change is vital from medical, scientific, ethical, and political standpoints. But first, it’s essential to grasp what it means to live briefly in space, as this stint comes with health risks, speeds up the aging process, and brings about changes that typically take 10 to 20 years to occur on Earth. These changes can be especially detrimental to the eyes, heart, DNA, and metabolism.

The health issues astronauts face upon returning from space are complex, but they offer valuable insights into preventing and treating the effects of aging on Earth. The good news is that space medicine is equipping us with new tools to tailor medications, exercise routines, and diets based on an individual’s unique molecular structure.

Roberto Vittori, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency who attended the Florence conference, explained how the effects experienced by the human body after spending time in space actually have a positive aspect for research.

The microgravity experienced on board has negative effects on the human body, similar to an accelerated aging process. While this may seem detrimental, it presents a unique opportunity for medical research and science. In fact, the rapid aging simulation that astronauts undergo in space can be reversed and thoroughly analyzed upon their return to Earth. Additionally, in microgravity, the brain must adapt its information processing mechanisms, offering valuable insights into human cognitive abilities and paving the way for future generations of explorers, including civilians.

And that’s not all. Fondazione Menarini also provided insights into ongoing research on artificial intelligence programs capable of anticipating and diagnosing diseases even before the onset of symptoms, liquid biopsies that can identify early signs of various types of cancer with a single blood draw, and digital twins used to predict the evolution of diseases.

The conference covered a wide range of topics, and also highlighted significant concern: the mental health of individuals who will be living and working in space or on permanent lunar bases in the upcoming decades.

NASA research psychologist Bettina Beard described a possible scenario in which many people would be working in space. 

To shield themselves from radiation, lunar dust, and meteorites, they will have to live in sealed shelters, isolated from friends and family back on Earth.” Therefore, “it’s essential to offer training programs to help them build resilience and improve their interpersonal communication skills. These people will also need to be trained to recognize early signs of distress, such as depression, loss of interest, or anxiety in their colleagues.

Lastly, the experts attending the conference delved into the ethical considerations linked to the establishment of a new space civilization. 

In order to avoid extinction, we will have to find a new planet to inhabit, possibly even a new solar system.” explained Christopher Mason, professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, “Given that we are the only species aware of the risk of life’s extinction, we have a moral obligation to do so. It is our responsibility to act as ‘shepherds of life’, not just towards our own species, but towards all those we rely on and those that will come in the future.